On ‘Fracking,’ President Boxes in Himself, America

by William Yeatman on June 13, 2011

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By all accounts, President Barack Obama has embraced ‘fracking,’ a.k.a. hydraulic fracturing, the American-made technological breakthrough in natural gas production that has roughly doubled known North American gas reserves in only the last five years. However, the President’s assault on American coal production has been so pervasive that he has given environmentalists the tools to block fracking from being applied to the most promising gas plays, despite his apparent support for the drilling technique. By warring with coal, the President has boxed himself in on gas.

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, the President set a target for America to generate 80% of its electricity by 2035 from “clean” energy sources, including wind, solar, clean coal, and natural gas. Three months later, in March, the White House issued an energy policy strategy, titled “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future,” in which it was stated that, “we must focus on expanding cleaner sources of electricity, including renewables like wind and solar, as well as clean coal, natural gas, and nuclear power…” In a speech to promote the Blueprint, the President noted, “The potential for natural gas is enormous.”

Hydraulic fracturing fundamentally altered the American natural gas market virtually overnight, such that the practice and the industry have become nearly synonymous. As such, the President’s evident affinity for natural gas is a tacit endorsement of fracking. He has adopted the reasoning that the explosion in natural gas supply, due to fracking, makes it an ideal “bridge fuel” from coal to renewables in the electricity sector. (The combustion of natural gas emits about half the greenhouse gases as does the combustion of coal.)

The President’s embrace of gas is why I’m convinced that the Obama administration won’t try to crackdown on fracking, even though it is being pressured by environmentalists to do so under the Safe Drinking Water Act. These green special interests are making unfounded allegations that fracking threatens to pollute the water table, and they want the Obama administration to regulate the process out of business. In response to this environmental alarmism, the President ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a comprehensive study on the effects of fracking on drinking water, due sometime in 2012. While any honest study would exonerate the technique from the enviros’ baseless claims*, President Obama’s administration has demonstrated that it will skew the facts to achieve political ends, so the truth doesn’t necessarily matter. Nonetheless, I am confident that the EPA’s won’t pull any such shenanigans, for the reasons I describe above.

Unfortunately for America, President Obama likely won’t have a choice whether or not to allow the fracking revolution to proceed apace. That’s because his war on conventional energy production has been so comprehensive that environmentalists are poised to take a regulatory crackdown targeted at coal and also apply it to gas.

As I explained here and here, the Obama administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to end a coal mining practice in Appalachia known as mountaintop removal mining. In a nutshell, the EPA manufactured a new Clean Water Act “pollutant”—salinity (as measured by “conductivity”)—tailor made to regulate Appalachian surface coal mining out of business. The EPA justifies the creation of this “pollutant” due to its inimical effect on a short lived insect native to Appalachia, one that isn’t an endangered species.

There is, however, a big problem with this coal crackdown: The EPA set the threshold so low that, in the words of one mining engineer, “you can’t wash a parking lot without violating” the proposed conductivity standard. That is, there is very little economic activity in Appalachia that would fail to violate this new “pollution” standard.  Its implementation would shut down all development in the region! The EPA tries to avoid this unintended consequence by claiming that its conductivity limits apply only to the coal industry, but that’s not how the Clean Water Act works.

It just so happens that the most promising play for hydraulic fracturing, the Marcellus Shale, is in the Appalachia parts of Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia. And already, environmentalists are connecting the dots between the EPA’s crackdown on Appalachian coal and the potential for an EPA crackdown on Appalachian gas production. The (liberal, environmentalist) Heinz Foundation, for example, is funding a three year study by the (liberal, environmentalist) Pennsylvania Academy of Natural Sciences to investigate the ecological impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania. Late in 2010, the Academy issued the first results of this study, and I’ll give you one guess as to which recently created “pollutant” figured prominently. According to the Huffington Post,

A preliminary study by researchers with the Academy of Natural Sciences asserts that the drilling boom could put rivers and streams at risk of pollution, even without spills or accidents.

Researchers at the academy, the nation’s oldest natural-science research center and a leading expert in stream biology, compared watersheds where there was little or no drilling to those watersheds where there was drilling and found significant changes…

The EPA can try all it wants to try to limit its “conductivity” regulatory regime to coal mining, but environmentalists will assuredly sue to ensure that it gets applied to gas, too. So it doesn’t matter if the President has embraced hydraulic fracturing; environmentalists will force his hand.

There’s an irony inherent to this particular unintended consequence. As I explained here, certain natural gas tycoons have a business strategy whereby they demonize coal as “dirty” in order to promote gas as an alternative. By fanning the flames of anti-coal sentiment, these natural gas executives have made possible the regulatory overreach that led to the EPA’s having engineered a pollutant to target coal mining. Now, the other shoe is dropping.

*[Re: the environmentalists’ baseless claims that fracking endangers water supplies. While there is some evidence that poorly built “fracking” rigs could lead to the escape of methane into local groundwater wells, this isn’t as disturbing as it sounds. Methane (ie, natural gas) does not make water poisonous, and there is no evidence that the fluids used in the process, which could be toxic, have leaked into well water. Much more importantly, there is ZERO evidence that the process affects water tables used for utility scale water supply, although environmentalist special interests are quick to try to conflate well-water methane contamination with water table contamination. The upshot is that hydraulic fracturing has been used in this country for fifty years, without harming public health and environment.]

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